Sunday, September 21, 2008

Theroux's bazaar becomes more bizarre

DAVE WILLIAMSON - September 20, 2008

GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR

On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar

By Paul Theroux - Print Edition - Section Front

McClelland & Stewart, - 496 pages, $34.99

In his 1992 travel book The Happy Isles of Oceania, prolific U.S. writer Paul Theroux began by explaining his motive for taking that particular trip to the South Pacific. He had just split up with his wife Anne, leaving her and their two sons in London.

In the opening pages of his new volume, Theroux reveals that he was having marital problems long before, in 1973. It was in that year that he embarked on the elaborate train trip across Europe and Asia that he transformed into his first bestselling book, The Great Railway Bazaar. Anne had not wanted him to go, and she later told him, "I pretended you were dead."

It's a mellowed Theroux who sets out on this latest jaunt; with the blessing of his second wife, Sheila, he revisits the route he took for Bazaar. Now in his mid-60s (he turns 65 during the trip), he intends to look for changes while calling up the spectre of his younger self. Readers who like armchair travel will welcome Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, a blend of historical facts, cultural oddities and Theroux's inimitable first-hand impressions.

He leaves from London in spring, 2006, taking the train through the "chunnel" to Paris. He travels light, "with my small bag and a briefcase I looked such a lightweight that the porters at the Gare du Nord ignored me." He causes you to wonder what he would've packed for months of continuous travel; he should've appended a list. He does mention an electric shaver and a BlackBerry that doubles as a flashlight.

As he crosses Europe bound for Turkey, Theroux enjoys reading and falling asleep in a cozy sleeping compartment. Even a dirty, crowded train is preferable to an airplane. Here's his description of the night train to Tashkent in Uzbekistan: "Nine of us in a four-person compartment, but it was orderly and safe nonetheless. Dirty, though, and smelly too - everyone sleeping in their clothes, the windows shut, wet boots steaming under the seats, stinky luggage, old leather jackets piled in a corner, chicken grease and bread crumbs and grated carrot littering the table. Filthy compartment, gracious people, no hassle."

It's the graciousness of the people that stands out, whether in a military dictatorship like Myanmar or a country still rebuilding from the ravages of war, like Vietnam or Cambodia. As Theroux contemplates atrocities - Russian gulags, terrorism in Sri Lanka, Americans sanctioning the torture of prisoners as "enhanced interrogation techniques" - he despairs for the future, but the spirit of the people gives hope.

He sees this spirit even in "Asia's biggest slum," in Mumbai, India. He nicely juxtaposes a visit to the slums with a visit to India's biggest IT company, which teaches well-educated young Indians to speak English with an American accent so they can talk to Californians as if they are based in Los Angeles.

In Turkmenistan, he sees gold statues that were erected by Saparmurat Niyazov, that oil-rich country's dictator: statues of Niyazov. At the time of Theroux's visit (some months before the leader died), the people were coming to grips with some of Niyazov's bizarre decrees: the banning of beards, gold teeth and ballet; renaming the days of the week and the months of the year after himself and his family.

Some of the best sections are Theroux's interviews with well-known writers: Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel laureate, in Istanbul; science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo, Sri Lanka; Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in Tokyo. In one delightful sequence, Theroux and Murakami meander through the seamier side of Tokyo, stopping by all six floors of Pop Life, a department store devoted entirely to porn.

The sex trade flourishes in most of the places Theroux visits. While finding that Singapore lives up to its reputation - "the most transformed of any city I had ever known in my life, a place twisted into something entirely new" - he does find "another Singapore ... twelve long streets of whorehouses, massage parlours, bars, knocking shops, and love hotels."

And on the streets of Hanoi, "unbidden, beauties on [motorbikes] mounted the sidewalk and, eagerly smiling, revving their engines, offered to speed me away. Each time they promised the same thing. 'Get on! You want boom-boom?' "

You have to admire Theroux's fortitude as he walks doggedly across the border from Turkey into Georgia, hitchhikes in Sri Lanka, takes a rickshaw at four in the morning in Mandalay. He does have some relaxing times - in a spa in Wakkanai, Japan, for example. When he's not writing his trip notes, he's composing the trilogy of novellas about India called The Elephanta Suite.

Some U.S. critics have complained that Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is spoiled by Theroux's self-indulgence. Surely all travel is self-indulgent, and if the information is tainted by egotism, it's more than balanced by Theroux's erudition and his keen sense of humour.

The best way to enjoy this latest adventure by one of the world's most entertaining travel writers is to relax, the way you would on one of those educational rides at Disney World. Follow Theroux wherever he goes; you'll be surprised and enthralled, and you'll learn a few things about countries you may never visit yourself.

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg novelist who, in 2000, took a train - the Chicago El - to meet Paul Theroux for an interview.

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